Once upon a time, a young man with the aspiration to make his mark – and the means to do it - got a good degree, perhaps Oxbridge, but maybe a provincial university, then went off and had a career doing something real, a profession, business, or the civil service, achieved something substantial in that chosen career, got some real understanding of life, then in his late thirties or early forties considered a life of public service in politics.
On entering the Commons, he had some understanding of the life of the nation, its people and its problems – he had a broad perspective and perhaps even a modicum of wisdom.
Not these days, they don’t …. Oxbridge is a must, and the degree must be that strange hybrid designed especially for the aspiring politician, the PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and the career chosen is politics from the start. And so the Asimovian new breed of politicians have their gestation, and walk straight off the Oxbridge assembly line with shining, metallic, inhuman certainty into the seat and the heart of government as a political assistant, as a speechwriter to a Cabinet Minister, as a special adviser.
Of course they have to select a political party to join to achieve this, and this selection is made, not on the basis of experience of life or burning conviction, but on a mix of family tradition, contacts, and cold, calculating assessment of which party offers the best route to power and influence within a short timescale, typically four or five years.
At some point, a sabbatical allows them to work or study in the United States for a year, where they meet senior US politicians and absorb effortlessly the idea of Britain as a junior partner, fully committed to a compliant and subservient role in foreign policy to their US masters.
At the earliest opportunity, with the backing of the established politicians they have served, they seek a nomination as a prospective parliamentary candidate, ideally for a safe seat. But occasionally they may have to undergo trial by fire in fighting a lost cause, in a contest which nonetheless bloods them and provides essential media coverage.
From the start, these strange creatures, custom-designed for politics, are strangers to the true life of the nation and its people, destined to rule them, but locked into the assumptions of a closed world that ensure that they can never properly serve them or serve true democracy.
Sooner or later, they have the right to take the state to war - with the approval of the United States – and they can assist the US in the pressing of the nuclear button.
They themselves will never be placed in harm’s way by military service, nor will their children, but they will sacrifice the children of others with relative equanimity, and with the glib words of regret and condolence they have learned to parrot at the feet of their mentors, words that they perhaps actually crafted for those who preceded them, in phrases liberally spattered with references to heroes, comrades, Queen and country, never forgetting and eternally grateful – variants on the old, old lie, Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.
(It pains me to mention that we have a version of this career path in the Scottish Parliament, where some candidates seem to think that proclaiming their ability to “find their way around the Parliament” - i.e. familiarity with the systems, procedures and political levers to push - constitutes an election address and gives them credibility with the electorate, rather than experience of life as it is lived in Scotland today, with some tangible experience and achievement within that reality . Frankly, if that is all they have to offer, it is not enough – for me, anyway.)
And so we have Ed, although it was a close run thing – it could have been David. Does it matter which overall? Yes, a little. Does it matter to Scotland? Probably quite a lot, at least in the spring of 2011, since it will influence the Labour vote in a contest which will be a straight fight between them and the SNP.
We might usefully remind ourselves that this new Labour leader has a special understanding of Scotland. He was deeply involved in Labour’s manifesto for the 1999 Holyrood elections, and in fact resigned as Special Advisor at the Treasury to devote himself full-time to that campaign, and Labour’s rebuttal strategy. He will be a formidable foe of the SNP.